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The Blog Aquatic

News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy

Spotlight on the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska: A Balanced Management Plan

Posted On March 11, 2013 by

Located in northwestern Alaska, the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (or the “Reserve”) encompasses vast and pristine Arctic landscapes, lakes, rivers, coastal lagoons and barrier islands. The Reserve is the single biggest unit of public land in the country; covering nearly 23 million acres, it is roughly the size of Indiana.

The Reserve is home to caribou, wolves, wolverine and grizzly bears, and provides breeding habitat for birds from every continent. Its coastal areas provide important denning habitat for polar bears, while the lagoons and near-shore waters are used by beluga whales, walruses and several species of ice-dependent seals. Additionally, native subsistence communities rely on the Reserve’s fish and wildlife species.

There is no doubt that the Reserve contains world-class wildlife resources, but  as the name implies, the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska also contains oil and gas resources. However, the energy resources are not as rich as was once believed. In 2010, the U.S. Geological Survey issued a new analysis and estimated the volume of undiscovered oil resources in the Reserve to be just 10 percent of what was previously thought.

Regardless of how much oil the Reserve contains, federal law requires the Department of the Interior to balance energy exploration and development with “maximum protection” of fish, wildlife and other surface values. Late last month, the Department of the Interior approved a comprehensive management plan for the Reserve that achieves this balance.

The newly approved management plan is the first of its kind to cover the entire Reserve, and  will protect the environment while also allowing oil and gas companies to access the majority of economically recoverable oil. Furthermore, it allows for future pipelines and other infrastructure in the event that oil and gas development proceeds in offshore areas.

Simultaneously, the plan provides important protections for some of the Reserve’s most sensitive habitats. It expands the Teshekpuk Lake and Colville River special areas, and creates a new special area for Peard Bay on the Chukchi Sea coast. The management plan provides significant protections for key coastal areas, including polar bear habitat, walrus and spotted seal haul out areas, and coastal lagoons important to beluga whales. In all, the newly approved management plan withdraws approximately 11 million acres of the Reserve from oil and gas leasing.

Ocean Conservancy joined with many other conservation organizations to support the new management plan for the Reserve, and the Department of the Interior’s decision to approve the plan represents a major step forward. By placing meaningful restrictions on oil and gas development to protect vital onshore and coastal habitats, the new plan demonstrates that it is possible to balance responsible energy development with conservation objectives. That’s a lesson worth remembering.

Too Close for Comfort–Map Shows Sensitive Areas Near Latest Tragic Gulf Rig Blast

Posted On November 21, 2012 by

Ocean Conservancy Map of important ecological areas near the recent rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico

Less than 24 hours after the US Government announced historic criminal fines for BP’s activities leading up to and following the BP oil disaster, an explosion on a production platform about 25 miles south of Grand Isle, LA left several workers injured, one man dead and another missing. The owner of the rig, Black Elk Energy, announced today that they were calling off the search for the missing worker.

This tragic event is a somber reminder that accidents can and do happen despite our best efforts to prevent them. Whether in the Gulf of Mexico or the Chukchi Sea (off Alaska’s Arctic coast), fossil fuel extraction carries risks to the workers as well as to sensitive environmental resources.

When an event like the explosion on the Black Elk rig occurs, it is natural and appropriate  to focus first on the well-being of those involved in a tragedy and then on the recovery and restoration of our natural resources, but it is critical to remember that we must also ensure that we are better prepared for the accidents and disasters that will inevitably occur.

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Failing to BSEE the Risk of Arctic Drilling

Posted On July 11, 2012 by

Arctic drilling burnoff. Credit: Getty Images

Less than two weeks ago, I wrote about the Obama administration’s decisions on Arctic oil and gas lease sales in the new five year offshore drilling program. That day, there was both promising and discouraging news. Today, however, the news is not mixed: Ocean Conservancy – in conjunction with a coalition of like-minded groups – is filing suit in federal court challenging the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s (BSEE) approval of Shell Oil’s spill response plan for the Chukchi Sea. Instead of approving plans that authorize risky exploration drilling, the Obama administration should focus on developing and implementing a comprehensive science and monitoring plan so that we can make more informed decisions about whether, when, where, and how to allow drilling in the Arctic.

Shell is proposing major industrial activity in a remote and dangerous place. The Arctic Ocean is prone to hurricane-force storms, 20-foot swells, sea ice up to 25 feet thick, sub-zero temperatures, and months-long darkness. There is no proven way to clean up an oil spill in these extreme conditions. And on top of all that, the Arctic has extremely limited infrastructure: There are no roads or deep water ports and only a handful of small airports. The nearest Coast Guard station is over 1,000 miles away.

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“To The Arctic” and Drilling in Alaska

Posted On April 23, 2012 by

To the Arctic follows a polar bear mother and her two cubs through a changing world. Image from MacGillivray Freeman Films.

Arctic drilling may not seem like something that affects most of us. After all, when was the last time you had a chance to dive into icy Arctic waters with walruses or follow polar bears across vast stretches of sea ice? But now, you can experience the Arctic from the comfort of a theater seat with “To the Arctic,” a new IMAX® movie by MacGillivray Freeman.

The film, narrated by Meryl Streep, follows a polar bear and her two cubs as they make their way through the rugged Arctic landscape. Along the way, you’ll see amazing images of our rapidly changing world, including stunning footage of wildlife, sweeping stretches of tundra, ghostly northern lights, and sculpted icebergs dotting the ocean.

But there are some things you shouldn’t see in the Arctic—like offshore drilling rigs. This summer, Shell is planning to drill for oil in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off the north and west coasts of Alaska. Continue reading »